NIA traces jehadi terror modules in Assam
POSTED ON 7 NOVEMBER 2014 (Updated on 8 Nov)
RESEARCH: CDPS Team
Muslims comprise a considerable 30.9 per cent (2011 census) of the population in Assam, a state of 30 million people. It has always been observed that Muslims in Assam have been practicing moderate Islam. There has been no significant report of Islamist militancy in the region. The region, however, shares a 262 kms long porous border with Bangladesh, a country that is a hotbed of Islamist militancy. The recent Burdwan blast (October 2, 2014), however, has shaken the country’s security agencies. The blast occurred in a house in the Khagragarh locality of Burdwan in West Bengal killing two suspected Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) terrorists—Shakil Ahmad and Shobhan Mandal and injuring Abdul Hakim Sheikh alias Hasan Saheb.
The incident is now being investigated by the National Investigating Agency (NIA). Shakil Ahmad’s wife Razira Bibi alias Rumi and Hakim Sheikh’s wife Amina Bibi alias Alima who were in the house at the time of the explosion, were arrested and are being interrogated. What has come as a revelation for the region is that the NIA’s “most wanted” list of 12 includes Sahanur Alom, a 33-year old man from Barpeta district in Assam who is suspected to be the key person behind the JMB in Assam. The Assam police arrested six youths from different areas of Barpeta district following intelligence inputs from the West Bengal Police and NIA.
After registering a case on 10 October[i] to probe the blast, the NIA team arrested Hasan Saheb who was injured in the blast, and gained some information that led to arrest of two women including the wife of one of the deceased. Leads received by the police led investigators to Assam. The Assam Police arrested six youths from Barpeta, in the western part, namely Shaikhul Islam (20), Rafikul Islam (39 years old), Shiraj Ali Khan(53), Jahuruddin (60), Golam Usmani (23) and Sarbesh Ali (35). They were sent to 14 days police custody by the CJM of Kamrup (Metro) district. According to the Assam Police, all of them are natives of western Assam’s Barpeta district, hailing from different villages namely Khudrakuchi, Kahikuchi, Roumari Pathar and Kayakuchi[ii]. “They were involved with the persons who died in the Burdwan blast and had linkages with the Bangladesh-based Jamat-ul-Mujahideen,” said a senior official of the Assam Police. He said that the interrogation was on to obtain more information regarding the spread of Islamist terror network in Assam and other parts of the Northeast region. The Assam Police regards this arrest as “one of the biggest achievements” since there were reports that Muslim youths from different districts, including Barpeta, Dhubri and the Bodoland territorial Areas Districts (BTAD), have been joining Islamist terror outfits, “particularly after the clashes between the Bodos and the Bengali-speaking Muslim settlers that have rocked the BTAD since 2012”[iii].
On 1 November, the Assam Government decided to hand over cases related to jihadi activities in the State to the NIA, due to its international ramifications. Earlier, on 29 October, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take up the issue of militancy and fundamentalist activities with the neighbouring countries, stating that in recent times Assam appears to have been targeted by fundamentalist organisations like the al-Qaeda[iv] . Explaining the gravity of the situation, the Chief Minister referred to the operatives having links with the JMB who were recently arrested in Assam. “There should be a similar mechanism at the inter-state level for West Bengal and the northeastern States so that issues of jurisdiction do not come in the way of dealing with insurgency and militancy,” Mr Gogoi said[v].
The recent developments regarding jehadi elements in the State could be observed since early September this year when security agencies were shaken after al Qaeda declared that it was preparing to launch a new phase of jihad in the Indian subcontinent. The terror outfit’s chief Ayman al-Zawahri was heard in a video[vi] hinting at the formation of new Islamist terror organisations in Bangladesh and Myanmar, with specific mention about Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Assam. Responding to this after a day of the release of the video, Tarun Gogoi said that his government had inputs that al Qaeda was trying to set up base in the northeastern State. The inputs also suggested that the Islamist terror outfit had reached a tacit understanding with the banned insurgent group United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA)[vii].
While the NIA team is examining transaction details of the bank accounts of Sahanur Alom, the kingpin of the Assam module of the JMB managed to escape from the house at Chatala village in Barpeta to Nalbari. As the security agencies managed to come close to him in Nalbari, he managed to escape the security net. However, Sahanur failed to move out to Bangladesh because he had to be on the run and went first to Delhi and later towards south India. Sahanur’s father, Mazibar Rahman, told the NIA team on 2 November that his son left the house with his wife, Sujina Begum, for his father-in-law’s house (about 30km away), a week after Id, and did not return[viii]. The NIA team confiscated a number of incriminating documents including four bank accounts, some books, hundreds of photographs of Sahanur in different guises, a receipt book of Talimul Madrassa in West Bengal, photographs of various persons and two burkhas. The packet where the burkhas were packed was marked ‘Burkha Ghar’, owned by Sakil Ahmed, suspected to be one of those killed in the Burdwan blast[ix]. Two people arrested from Assam could give some information about the incident which included claims that Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) could have been smuggled into neighbouring Bangladesh though they could not provide any information about how explosives were transported.
On 7 November 2014, Sahanur’s wife Sujina was arrested in a joint operation by National Investigation Agency (NIA), Guwahati City Police and the CRPF [x]. Investigators were on the lookout for Sujina ever since she had gone underground along with Shahnur immediately after the Burdwan blast. Sujina was arrested from the Inter-State Bus Terminus in Boragaon area of Guwahati.During preliminary investigation, she had confessed to have undergone training in a madrassa in West Bengal on several occasions.Aged about 30, Sujina was with her one-and-half-year child when she was arrested by police. The arrest has been made under SOU Police Station case 1/14 under Sec 120 (b), 121 (a), 122, 142, 23 of the IPC read with 10/13/16/18(B)/20 Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (Assam Police) on the strength of which six other arrests of suspected jehadi operatives were made in Barpeta district on 9 October.
Sahanur Alom had organized a “special namaz” on 28 July 2014, one day ahead of Eid-ul-Fitr. This had led to a clash between his supporters and a section of villagers. Reports say that Sahanur Alom was trying to propagate Salafi sect of Islam, for which he had invited the wrath of fellow villagers after he had organized an Eid namaz on the day a sizeable population do in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and some other countries, which is one day ahead of Eid prayers in India. Alom had brought a group of some 70 strangers to the village and organized an Eid prayer on July 28, one day ahead of Eid prayers in India[xi]. Local Muslims opposed to Eid prayers one day before the actual date, also beat up Sahanur and several other persons who had come to the village that day. A burqa-clad woman who had come with the group in a “big” car also shot visuals of the “special namaz”, local reports said.
The NIA team visited the residence of the madrassa teacher, Anuwar Hussain Mallick, (the controversial namaz was conducted in Mallick’s courtyard) and inquired with him about the “special namaz” organised by Sahanur[xii]. While local police suspect Alom has been associated with JMB for about three years or so, NIA has found evidence of his frequent trips to Burdwan and other places in West Bengal.
On 1 November, the NIA had announced cash rewards for information leading to the arrest of 12 absconders (Sajid, Nasirullah and Kausar, Talha Sheikh, Maulana Yusuf Sheikh, Amjad Ali Sheikh, Habibur Rahman Sheikh, Sahanur Alom, Abdul Kalam, Burhan Sheikh, Rejaul Karim and Jahirul Shaikh) in connection with the Burdwan blast. Cash reward of Rs. 10 lakh each against five absconders, Rs. 5 lakh each for three accused and Rs. 3 lakh for the remaining four suspects has been announced.
The interrogation reports of Razira Bibi, Alina Bibi and Badrul Alam reportedly state that plans were afoot to create a terror network in West Bengal and Assam to build an Islamic state in Bangladesh as well as in the three West Bengal districts - Murshidabad, Nadia, Malda - through armed struggle. The women said JMB was on a recruitment and fund-raising drive for months. It targeted seven madrasas in Murshidabad, Malda and Nadia districts to recruit a dedicated cadre of at least 150 young men to carry out attacks in Bangladesh. Before the October 2 blast, nearly 50 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) had been dispatched to Dhaka and Assam, the women told interrogators. “We don’t know if the bombs were meant for terror attacks in Assam but Dhaka was definitely a target,” a senior security official said[xiii].
Official sources said that during the investigation, NIA has come across information about the activities of JMB members across India and their links with Bangladesh. After interrogation of the arrested persons involved in Burdwan blast, NIA has come to the conclusion that at least 120 IEDs were transported to Bangladesh in four batches. The two main suspects Kausar and Maulana Yusuf Sheikh, who are on run, are Bangladeshi nationals with wide contacts in that country. India has also sought details from Bangladesh about the interrogation report of two JMB militants Asif Adnan (26) and Fazle Elahi Tanjil (24) who were arrested from Segunbagicha area of Dhaka[xiv].
The bomb factory at Burdwan was operational for three months with the husbands of the two women travelling regularly to Burrabazar in Kolkata to purchase basic ingredients. The Burdwan module was reporting to a JMB operative identified as Kausar Ali, a Bangladeshi citizen and one of the main accused in the Burdwan blast case[xv]. The interrogation report says that the JMB operatives based in Syhlet, Bangladesh, were sending cash through couriers to a doctor in Assam. The doctor would then inform Kausar who sent three recruits by road to Assam to collect the cash personally. The couriers would take elaborate detours to Berhampore, the district headquarters of Murshidabad, carrying cash consignments going up to Rs. 10 lakh at times. Kausar would also coordinate the delivery of the bombs from various modules to the Indo-Bangladesh border.
Indian intelligence agencies – the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) – had earlier identified two key JMB leaders, Sohail Mehfooz and Mohammed Bilal, regularly visiting the seven madrasas in India. They were joined by another JMB leader, Mohammed Habibur Rehman, who visited Murshidabad to meet several Indians and start a fund-collection drive. According to intelligence reports, the details of the fund collection and recruitment from India was finalised at a meeting of the JMB leadership in August 2014 at the Darul-Ulum-Majharul madrasa in Nawabganj, Bangladesh[xvi].
The literature recovered from the Burdwan house[xvii] also reveals links of JMB to several global terror outfits. There were pamphlets mentioning al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri and others addressed to “brothers in Chechnya.” A DVD supporting the al Qaeda and Chechen rebels was also recovered from the house along with 55 grenades, gelatin sticks, chemicals and five cellphones with 50 SIM cards.
Bangladesh, however, is “not surprised” at the “recent discovery”. On 5 November, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's International Affairs Adviser, Gowher Rizvi, assured India[xviii] of Dhaka's efforts to curb terrorism, obtain information and share it. "The recent discovery doesn't surprise us, but shows that our efforts to curb terrorism, obtain information and share it between the two countries is working very effectively. That is the important thing to remember. Going with past experiences, we are very satisfied with the intelligence which is shared with us, as we consider them to be very helpful to us," said Rizvi.
On 28 October, the Assam Police arrested Sahanur’s brother Zakaria on charges of having links with JMB. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi on 2 October said, "There is a jihadi threat in the state. I am also a target. Then there is the state secretariat, other offices and Kamakhya temple also on the target list of jihadi elements"[xix]. The Assam Government stated that, “Some youths from the state had undergone jihadi training abroad. They were also trying to set up a separate wing to recruit women for jihadi activities. Most of these youths were from Barpeta district.” The Government admitted that few madrassas may be linked to jihadis, though one should not generalize religious institutions as the breeding ground for fundamental activities[xx].
The JMB was formed in 1998 by Maulana Abdur Rahman and was banned by the Bangladesh government in 2005. It was responsible for no less than 500 bomb explosions in Bangladesh and is said to have very close links with al Qaeda. India has also designated the JMB as a terrorist organization[xxi]. Minority bodies in Assam have demonstrated their worry about this recent development. The All Assam Minorities Students’ Union (AAMSU) addressed the media and said that they have decided to use every public forum as a platform to appeal to people to not cooperate with or give shelter to persons or groups suspected to have jihadi links.
vi. Some media reports in India stated that this could be a fake video
x. The Assam Tribune, 8 November 2014
xiii. Larger terror design behind Burdwan blast? Saikat Datta, Hindustan Times New Delhi, October 14, 2014, http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/larger-terror-design-behind-burdwan-blast/article1-1275419.aspx
xx. The Telegraph, 5 November 2014